Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Matter of the Heart

Psalm 51
Jeremiah 31:31-34
John 12:23-24

         If someone could read your heart, what would it say?  If God’s words for you were etched upon your beating heart, what would a spiritual CT scan reveal?  In this Lenten season of introspection, take a moment to scan within and see what God’s hand has written within you.  (SILENCE)
          Now to the heart of the matter: Faith is a matter of the heart.  The prophet Jeremiah did not direct the Jews exiled in Babylon to affirm certain statements about God.  Neither did the rabbi Jesus require his followers to believe particular concepts about the Divine.  They cared more about people’s behaviors than their beliefs.  Many people today find it hard to believe that Christianity is not about what you believe because relatively recent versions of Christianity (in the last 400 years particularly) have stressed doctrine almost exclusively.[i] 
          From the book of Jeremiah we heard today that God’s new covenant would be written upon human hearts so that everyone would know God.  Knowing God is different from knowing ABOUT God.  In other words, according to Jeremiah, relationship trumps dogma.  Jeremiah preached the possibility that within each of us exists a renewable capacity to sense what is sacred and ultimate. God’s dream for humanity is not for religious authorities to teach people specialized information about God--but for people to experience God.  Hear Jer. 31: 33-34 again: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD.” 
          Likewise, Jesus never catechized his disciples about what they should profess about God or about himself.  Not once did Jesus say, “You must believe this or that.”  Certainly Jesus and his followers operated within a certain worldview, so they probably took for granted beliefs pervasive within that culture.  But Jesus never sought to impose a particular worldview on others.  Instead, Jesus invited people to “follow him” on a path that, he often said cryptically, was like dying and being born again. 
          Jeremiah said God’s fullest intentions cannot be engraved in cold stone but must be written upon beating hearts.  Jesus said God’s way cannot be known through philosophical assertions but must be composed in the hearts of faithful ones as they die to self-interest in order to live in union with God and others.  The human heart is at the heart of faith.
          To emphasize the role of the “heart” in Christian faith is not to speak of the heart as the seat of emotion, is not to say that Christianity is unrestrained emotionalism, that Christian theology is anti-intellectual, or that Christian moral and social action hinge upon doing what feels right.  Rather, in the biblical world the heart represented one’s full selfhood—and that included the mind.
          But it’s a common mistake to reduce the Christian faith to a set of beliefs.  Again, Christian faith is a way to live. As Marcus Borg explains so well in his book The Heart of Christianity, only since the era of the Enlightenment have Christians understood their faith to be a set of a truth claims about God and Jesus, claims to which they must intellectually assent—however illogical the propositions.  In fact, when biblical literalists encounter strong evidence that some of their truth claims are unsupportable, they argue all the more that, for instance, the earth is a mere 6,000 years old, and they do so with the conviction that they are defending Christianity itself, as if faith requires adherents to deny reason.
          Meanwhile, liberal Christians too often stay in their heads, approaching God theoretically, tepidly. 
          Liberals and conservatives alike need to be reminded that for most of its existence, Christian faith has engaged followers in a “radical trust” of God’s compassion and a deeply relational commitment to the loving ways of Jesus and the community of Christ.  Even the Latin word credo, from which we get the word “creed,” though translated “believe,” is not about agreeing to literal-factual truths; instead it means “I give my heart to” (Borg 39-40).  “Most simply,” says Borg, “’to believe’ [originally] meant ‘to love’” (40).  In the Bible, the word “heart” is usually a metaphor for the spiritual center of the self”, a hope and trust at the “foundation of an entire way of life and vision of the world” (Christopher Grasso qtd. in Still by Lauren Winner, p. 169).
          “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” the Psalmist prayed.  “God writes God’s law of love upon our hearts,” Jeremiah preached.  “You shall love the Lord with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus reminded his disciples.  Although we may want Christianity to be a matter of believing the right things, in fact it is a matter of the heart.
          In Lauren Winner’s most recent memoir, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, she shares the story of Julian, a friend recalling her childhood preparations for confirmation. “A few days before the confirmation service, [12-year-old] Julian told her father—the pastor of the church—that she wasn’t sure she could go through with it.  She didn’t know that she really believed everything she was supposed to believe, and she didn’t know that she should proclaim in front of the church that she was ready to believe it forever.  'What you promise when you are confirmed,’ said Julian’s father, 'is not that you will believe this forever.  What you promise when you are confirmed is that that is the story you will wrestle with forever.'”   
          Our book study on Tuesday evenings is part of the Church’s commitment to remain conversant with the biblical story we will continue to wrestle with forever.  We will continue to consult ancient words on the pages of our Bibles because we value not only the unique revelations of God in our own individual hearts and lives—but also respect revelations passed down to us through the centuries.  As George has been teaching on Tuesday nights, this process of “listening to scripture” first involves an attempt to understand what the original communities that wrote biblical stories were trying to say in their day. Then we try to put the words of Jeremiah or Jesus, for instance, in conversation with contemporary thought and personal experience.   In this way we learn the law of love not only from our subjective personal experiences but also from others’ reflections on their experiences.  When we merge these sources of revelation together in the communal processes of congregational life, we benefit further from the collective wisdom of our faith community.  As a community of faith we help one another interpret the Bible, the world, and the human heart.  Without the counterbalancing conversations with the ancient world (through the Bible) and the current world (though our community), the human heart might not be completely trustworthy.  For you who have asked if biblical study is really worth the time it takes to extract meaning, I would say that the law written on the human heart can often be amplified or corrected in conversation by the law written on the ancient scrolls.  I do not say the Bible trumps the human heart; but the voices in the Bible and within modern communities of faith are good conversation partners as we read the law of love, the ultimate law we should obey. Responsible Bible study leads us to love.
          In the spirit of reading the Bible responsibly, let me briefly detour one moment to caution against from making one common mistake in interpreting Hebrew Bible scriptures.  Many Christians read today’s Jeremiah text as evidence of the superiority of Christianity over Judaism.  They think, for instance, that Jeremiah was predicting God would create the new covenant of love through Jesus, and that Jesus would thus invalidate or supersede the covenants God made with the Jews.  Such an interpretive practice of Christianizing Jewish writings by reading them “backwards” with a Christian lens implicitly invalidates the original meanings of Jewish scripture.  Although the communities that later wrote about Jesus would, centuries later, adapt Jeremiah’s metaphor to describe a new covenant in Jesus’s blood, Jeremiah did not predict the life or death of Jesus.  Furthermore, we can never forget that Jesus was a Jew. He did not see himself as creating a new religion to replace Judaism. Unfortunately, Christian interpreters have made too much of Jesus’ in-house arguments with his fellow Jews and have misunderstood the reforming Jesus movement as a replacement and repudiation of Judaism. But the early Christians were Jews, and early Christianity developed alongside rabbinical Judaism which was being born about the same time. To conclude that Judaism is based in legalism while Christianity is based on grace is to ignore the Bible itself.  Here in Jeremiah we see within the Jewish tradition the God of grace who gives us second chances, the God of grace who forgives and forgives, the God of grace who covenants with us in love.  It is simplistic and insulting to Jews to say that the God of the Hebrew Bible is an angry God while the God of the Christian scriptures is a loving God. 
          We return to the Jeremiah lection to appreciate the Judeo-Christian concept of forgiveness, as it opens the heart to the law of love.  If we are to understand the new covenant, if God’s love is to be legible in our hearts and in our lives, we must experience forgiveness: that is, we must be able accept forgiveness and offer forgiveness.  Forgiveness is the key to reading the law God writes on our hearts.  The Hebrew people freed from Egyptian bondage broke the covenant they’d made with the God who liberated them.  Yet God forgave. (Jeremiah 31:32-34).  Their covenant was no longer a conditional contract.  It was amended to become the law of love that forgives and forgives. What an evolutionary leap in human ethics and spirituality!
          In this Lenten season we return to a bedrock experience of forgiveness. Lent is traditionally a time for confessing sins and receiving pardon.  Progressive Christians may rightly resist wallowing in our unworthiness.  The word “sin” may not seem the most helpful descriptor for societal problems and our own deep needs.  Still, we must face honestly the human dilemma and our personal limitations.  Christian spirituality leads us to practice the giving and receiving of forgiveness that is readily ours through the covenant of Love.  

          Look back on the first page of your worship bulletin to view again that copy of Chagall’s painting of “Jeremiah” tenderly hugging the Torah scroll to his heart as if to internalize its law of love.  What messages, biblical or otherwise, have you internalized? So many cultural messages are harmful: We’re told that African American young men wearing hoodies are dangerous, that women are inferior, that wealth is the ultimate value, that violence must be met with violence.  It is hard NOT to internalize some of those messages. But perhaps God has written another message. Look again within.  Is God’s unconditional loving forgiveness written on your heart?  I can’t imagine anything more important for us to take into our being.  Our lives can be completely changed by simply taking that truth to heart.
          We have known love most truly when we have been forgiven—and when we have forgiven ourselves and others.  We have seen this gracious love most purely as Jesus forgave from the cross.  The law of love opens us up to the possibilities of newness. Forgiveness is how God re-births us.  Forgiveness is the way the old self dies and the new self springs up.  Forgiveness is the language of love in the covenant written upon our hearts.
          I opened the sermon by asking you to imagine what is written on your own heart. 
          I think both Jesus and Jeremiah would find the word “love” written there.  God’s covenant with us is a promise of love and an expectation of love for others, a love so deep that it keeps on forgiving, a covenant so just that all have access to it, a covenant so generous it continues even when one party breaks the agreement. In modern shorthand, God “hearts” us.  The human heart IS both God’s medium and message.

[i] I found the comments posted in response to this article telling.  Both atheists and conservative Christians were unable to hear John Gray’s point (and mine) that religions are “about how we live and not what we believe.”  Those who attack Christianity are really attacking a straw man:  

Monday, March 19, 2012

Lenten Meditation: As Moses Lifted Up the Serpent

On third Sundays at Open Table, our worship is influenced by the Taize (France) community.  The mood is meditative.  We pray through scripture, song, and silence.  Often I offer some commentary on scripture or a guided reflection, but no sermon.  Excerpted from yesterday's worship service, I share below 2 of yesterday’s lections with the accompanying commentary and guided reflection.  The rest of the liturgy included litanies, songs or chants from the Taize and Iona communities, other scriptures, more silence, and the opportunity for embodied prayer at several prayer stations.

HEBREW BIBLE LESSON      Numbers 21: 4-9         
4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

I am phobic about snakes.  Even the nonvenomous types.  I avert my eyes if snakes appear on television.  I turn the page if a snake is pictured in a book.  I’ll dodge the glassed-in containers of snakes in a pet store.   And I’m ready to move out of my house if I see one in my back yard.  But here is a story that says people dying of snake bite must look at an image of the thing that is killing them in order to live.

Reading this story metaphorically and meditatively, we notice that our healing hinges upon our willingness to gaze directly upon the image of the thing that has been hurting us.  Of course, we look at a representation of the snake; we do not continue to subject ourselves to the harmful thing itself.  Instead, we consider honestly, straightforwardly the thing outside of us or inside of us that is not healthy.  Only by facing the truth of what is harming us will we be able to acknowledge and be released from its harm.

Lent is a time for looking inward and outward at things that are injuring or limiting us—or our world.  Most of the time the objects of our fears or discomforts make us want to turn the page or change the channel or move out of the house.  Most of the time we’d prefer just to end a relationship or give up a responsibility.  We don’t want to look at the person or situation that hurts us, and we certainly don’t want to acknowledge the toxins within us. But something in us might die if we don’t.  Something in our world might not be healed.

So Lent is a season for looking outwardly at personal relationships and daily practices and societal problems.  And Lent is a season for looking inwardly at our own tendencies and personalities that sometimes cause harm to us and others.  In the story of Moses and the people he was leading away from bondage, ALL were being harmed by their constant spirit of complaint and fear, by their lack of gratitude, by their over-reliance on Moses.

And those toxic attitudes slithered through the whole community, creeping up on them until the community would have died if they’d not realized what they were doing.  So they prayed that God would remove the venomous threat. Which God did not do.  Instead God instructed Moses to lift up—to make everyone face—this harmful thing.  And thus they were saved. 

In this Lenten season we, too, look up, figuratively, to realize that truth and self-awareness can be saving virtues. We can look to something higher and greater, something beyond all that is striking at our feet and twining around and constricting our hearts.  We look inward, outward, knowing our own truth, which God holds out to us. When we gain God’s lofty perspective, even the serpents of life ultimately become bronzed, immobilized, powerless anti-icons. Lent is a time for a spiritual de-tox.   Don’t look down.  The things swirling at your feet can overwhelm.  Look up.  See the thing as it can be: a habit, a trait, a personal challenge that does not have to harm you, that can in fact show you the higher perspective.

Let us examine our lives in the presence of Loving God, opening our hearts so that we do not deceive even ourselves.                   

Recall a time when you were able to face something “poisonous” in your life that was harming your spirit.  How were you able to “look at it and live”?  Consider how “anti-venom”—derived from the toxin—is activated when you can name the thing that threatens spiritual health. Now bring to mind anything that is currently having a potentially harmful impact on your spiritual growth: an attitude, a tendency, a pattern of behavior, a mindset. 



GOSPEL LESSON    John 3: 14-21
14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

“I grew agitated each time [the minister] touched on the suffering of Jesus.  For a long time my agitation confused me.  I am a great lover of Jesus, and always have been.  Still, I began to see how the constant focus on the suffering of Jesus alone excludes the suffering of others from one’s view . . . I knew I wanted my own suffering--and the suffering of women and little girls, still cringing before the overpowering might and weapons of the torturers--to be the subject of a sermon.  Was woman herself not the tree of life?  And was SHE not crucified?  Not in some age no one remembers, but right now, daily in many lands on earth?”(Possessing the Secret of Joy, 1992).

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”  Like any metaphor, this one comparing Jesus on the cross to the serpent on Moses’s pole finds one main connection between two very dissimilar objects or ideas.  The community that wrote the Gospel of John believed that they had been “saved” because Jesus was lifted up on the cross.  What it means to be saved and how Jesus makes that salvation/healing/rescue possible is the subject of centuries of theology and innumerable writings.  It’s a subject we as progressive Christians have considered before and will continue to revisit because one of the ways our ministry in Mobile brings a saving word to our community is by retuning churchy words like “saved.”   Let me take a little liberty with John 3:16, rooting it in its biblical contexts, with my own paraphrase of one of the most well-known verses in the Bible: God loved the entire world so much that God gave to us a way of life, revealed by Jesus, and whoever lives in that way will not succumb to the venomous things but will experience love eternal.

So much more should be said about the third chapter of John’s Gospel.  But for today, let’s use the words of Alice Walker we’ve just read in order to consider how Jesus, lifted up on a cross, can keep us from perishing. 

I remember years ago when a pastor said something that later seemed quite obviously true but which shocked me at the time.  He said that Jesus’s death on the cross was not the worst suffering any human being ever endured.  And indeed the Bible never claims Jesus suffered more than any other person, though I had heard others claim that Jesus’s suffering was unique in its extremity and type.  But think about it.  Surely there have been some who endured physical torture greater than crucifixion.  Surely others have endured physical suffering for far longer than Jesus did.  Surely others have endured emotional and psychological trauma far greater than Jesus who, though hated and feared and betrayed by some, was loved by many.  Surely Mary’s suffering for her dying son was in some ways worse than his own.  And why would Jesus need to win the suffering contest?  Why, theologically speaking, would his pain have to trump the pain of a tormented and tortured victim of some other atrocity in human history in order for Jesus to make for us a way of salvation?   

The pain was not the point.  In fact, if we "lift up" violence, we will glorify it.  And if we make too much of Jesus’s agony, we can, as Alice Walker says, forget that others are being crucified today.  Our tears for Jesus can blind us to the suffering of others.  And even the smaller sufferings deserve our pity.  Let us not forget that others are enduring as best they can the lesser pains of human living. 

What is central to Christian teaching is that the God-in-flesh, the Christ, knows human pain and is with us in each and every suffering in this earth.  Because you and I are united in Christ, we, too, want to practice a compassion that joins our hearts with the ongoing birth pangs of a world laboring to birth God’s new humanity.  We begin to pray, with tenderness of heart, for those who are bearing burdens, large and small.  For God so loves the world . . .

We name aloud or hold in the silence of our own hearts those who are sick or in distress, those who are alone or in grief, those who are hungry and homeless, those overwhelmed by their responsibilities, those who are victims of violence and injustice.

“Kyrie Eleison”  

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Insiders, Outsiders, Alongsiders

 Today's sermon was a response to the state of Alabama's House Bill 56, the nation's harshest immigration bill, and to an editorial another pastor in our city wrote for the Mobile Press-Register supporting this bill. (Johnson, Rusty.  “Morality vs. Immigration:  It is Not Un-Christian to Deport Illegal Trespassers” Mobile Press-Register (8 January 2012) 14A.).  After worship today the members of Open Table and others gathered for "Contact Your Legislator, " an event to which the pubic was invited for the purpose of calling, emailing, and writing letters to our state legislators and governor urging them to repeal a law we consider unwise and unjust. 

 John 2: 13-22

If it weren’t for an editorial printed some months ago in the Press-Register, I’d have been hard pressed to connect today’s assigned Gospel reading to the purpose of our Contact your Legislator event after tonight’s service.  If it weren’t for that writer’s unique—by which I mean illogical—explication of the Gospel story we just read, today’s lectionary text would not have spoken to me about how we as individuals and as Alabamians should treat our immigrant neighbors.

But thanks to the fellow minister who wrote that article, today’s Gospel reading seems the perfect text to introduce Contact Your Legislator night-- because he made this scripture applicable to the immigration issue.  He chose this very story of Jesus driving out the money changers from the Temple as his key evidence that Alabama’s House Bill 56 should be the “whip of cords” to “drive” the “illegals” out of our state.  Of all the New Testament scriptures he might have used in determining how Jesus would want us to treat strangers in a strange land, he used this, and only this scripture, to argue that Jesus would want us to create very strict laws to maintain borders.  Jesus—whose parents “illegally” crossed into Egypt to save their baby boy in defiance of King Herod’s death order—this same Jesus would want us to send immigrants back to conditions that, for some, might result in death or great deprivation?  I don’t think so.  

I referenced part of this misguided column in a previous sermon, but I didn’t address the portion of that column pertinent to today’s lectionary reading.  My purpose is not to ridicule a fellow pastor, but to use his really good example of really bad biblical interpretation to introduce a more compassionate reading of that text—and to illustrate why we’re gathering on Tuesday nights in  Lent to learn more about how to read the Bible.  Some folks are reading the Bible without a license, and that’s dangerous.

Before we measure HB 56 against John 2: 13-22, let me state the obvious: Jesus knew nothing about the United States of America or the great state of Alabama.  He and his contemporaries never heard of modern nation states, passports, legal paths to citizenship, globalization, or free trade agreements. We can’t know what Jesus would have thought about the complex set of issues related to the way nations today maintain national borders, make their own laws, enter into trade agreements, and determine who is eligible for citizenship. Most of us probably agree our current immigration system needs rethinking but few claim to know exactly how to correct the problems and no one can know exactly what Jesus would recommend.

Let me also acknowledge that some of us here may support HB 56.  If so, I hope you, too, will feel free to stay for tonight’s session, maybe learn a little more about that new law, and then urge your legislator to uphold your position.  We at Open Table don’t have to agree on all points—theological, social, or political. But I’m taking the pastor’s prerogative here of naming what seems to me to be an unjust law and offering a prophetic word based on my own limited but soul-searched understandings of biblical justice and Jesus’s teachings of compassion.  While it’s not appropriate for pastors in pulpits to endorse candidates or political parties, it is, in my opinion and in the practice of our denomination, incumbent on us to work for laws and processes that consider the needs of those on the margins. As our Congregationalist forebears protested slavery in the 19th century; as United Church of Christ clergy and laity marched for civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights in the 20th century; so our new congregation feels called to join others in our denomination already working for just laws in the 21st century.

Now back to the Special to the Press-Register column I’m critiquing, which is one the strangest examples of biblical exegesis I’ve ever seen. The odd title itself gets us off to a shaky start:  “Morality vs Immigration: It’s Not UnChristian to Deport Illegal Trespassers.” Right away we sense that even the author isn’t fully convinced of his position.  He can’t quite bring himself to say, “It IS Christian to deport people,” so somewhat defensively, weakly, apologetically he states:  “Well, it’s not UNChristian” to do so.

After misinterpreting several Old Testament scriptures, he closes with the only New Testament scripture in the article.  I’m quoting the sentence that opens that section: “[I]n the New Testament (John 2:13-16), we read that Jesus went to the temple and saw trespassers unlawfully buying and selling and exchanging money.”

The writer’s first rhetorical move here is to compare the moneychangers Jesus rebuked to modern undocumented immigrants, whom he calls trespassers in his title. But the moneychangers were hardly trespassers, not in a literal sense, and Jesus did not call them that.  The moneychangers played an authorized role the Temple’s practice of animal sacrifice.  They were the legitimate insiders in a religious practice that required worshipers to sacrifice unblemished animals, most of which were bought on site.  And since secular money with Caesar’s image on it could not be used for these purchases in the Temple, the impure Roman coins had to be exchanged for Temple shekels.  This story has nothing to do with immigration, of course, but if it did, the moneychangers would be the last people I’d compare to undocumented immigrants.   

The editorial writer completely misunderstands who are the “outsiders” in this story and where Jesus’s concerns lie. Jesus throws out the insiders. The moneychangers were part of the Temple’s sanctioned system of offering sacrifices.  The moneychangers were not doing anything unlawful.  Jesus is angry with them not because they’ve broken the law but because they’ve profited from a religious law that disadvantages those on the margins. Scholars disagree about whether Jesus felt the moneychangers were abusing a sanctioned system for their profit, or whether he felt the entire sacrificial system was wrong.  

 But we can’t help but recall what, according to Isaiah, angers God. According to Isaiah, a book with which Jesus was familiar, God is angered when religious people pray and sacrifice “the blood of bulls and lambs and goats” in the Temple but fail to take care of the vulnerable in that society.  Isaiah voices God’s anger over bad religion this way:  “Take your evil deeds out of my sight . . . . Learn to do right; seek justice.  Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1: 16-17). That’s what made God mad, Isaiah said.  That’s what made Jesus mad, I think.

Besides, can you recall a single time Jesus ever railed against anybody for breaking any religious or civil law?  In fact, he himself was called a lawbreaker.  No, Jesus is verbally and physically “turning the tables” on those who had official permission to be in that space. He is driving the insiders outside the Temple borders. Jesus’s point is that they have crossed an ethical boundary line God had marked between religious practices that lift up the lowly and religious practices that aggrandize the privileged.  The money changers are the privileged.  America's immigrants are not the privileged.

The Gospel writers consistently show Jesus inviting people living on the margins to come inside, as when he permits the little children to come to him and when he speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well--radical actions in his day. The Bible likewise shows Jesus himself stepping outside the inner circle to be with the outsiders—as when he dines alongside sinners like Zacchaeus. The people in this story who are most like modern immigrants in Alabama are the Jewish peasants who journey to Jerusalem from many nations and who, like Jesus, were not Roman citizens.  

As I said, this is not a story about immigration, but it is a central Gospel story, as embarrassing as it may be for us to see gentle Jesus herding human beings out of the temple along with cattle and sheep.  All four Gospels include this story, and all four understand it to be highly significant.  The synoptic Gospels say the event happened just prior to Jesus’s arrest, suggesting this was the action that finally got him arrested.  John, however, moves the story to the start of Jesus’s ministry, maybe to color our entire experience of that Gospel with our awareness of both Jesus’s defense of the powerless and his dramatic ways of confronting the powers that be.  From the beginning of John we already hear Jesus predicting his death and resurrection, saying he, like the Temple, will be destroyed, but he will rise up again in the 3 days.  However, the fact that Jesus is courting arrest, is stepping over the legal border, is lost on the writer of the article I'm critiquing. 

That article continues: “[The moneychangers] were not there to worship or offer sacrifice; they were there to merchandise the temple. Jesus made a whip of small chords and violently turned over the tables and ran the trespassers out of the temple. He would have allowed them to come the right way and for the right purpose of worshipping, but he would not allow them to unlawfully compromise the sanctity of the temple. Likewise, it is not un-Christian to deport illegal trespassers in America who are here only to merchandise our nation and are unwilling to honor our laws and way of life.”

If we must find an analogy in this story to Alabama’s immigration issues, surely Jesus would be angry ON BEHALF of immigrants in Alabama when religious authorities, like the writer of this article, disregard the needs of our most vulnerable neighbors. The author equates the boundaries of the Temple with the political borders of our nation.  This pastor has implicitly elevated our national borders to some kind of holy demarcation like that which existed in the Temple system, and he believes only those deemed pure may enter.   

Fear permeates his essay and similar arguments we hear in support of HB 56. What are the supporters of HB 56 defending? Not the weak and the vulnerable. They admit they are defending their economic self-interest.  And in harsh economic times, people sometimes seek a scapegoat. The author claims immigrants are, like the moneychangers in the Temple, “merchandizing” our state, which apparently means that immigrants are exploiting Alabama’s citizens for their own financial gain. But how exactly are hard-working, underpaid migrant farm laborers exploiting anyone? Besides, overwhelming evidence now proves that this bill--not undocumented immigration--has had an extremely negative economic impact on our state. 

So I suspect there is an irrational fear at work. The article’s author fears “our way of life” is being threatened, which is code for fear of foreigners or anyone different. I hear this pretty explicitly when the writer later demands that immigrants learn our traditions and language. He doesn’t realize his own prejudice, of course.  No doubt he sincerely believes that he is defending something sacred.  But beneath this bill there is deep prejudice born of hate which is born of fear.  If we follow Jesus’s example, we are going to get angry at times—about what is happening to other people.  That is righteous anger, my friends.  But this minister-writer chose to cite this rare instance of Jesus’s anger to tap into the fear of his readers and, I believe, to incite and sanctify anger in them.

Rather than drawing lines between insiders and outsiders, Jesus invites us to be alongsiders, to come alongside those who are vulnerable.  You have been doing this so well in the last two weeks as you have visited Rosemarie in the hospital simply to companion her in the recovery process.  She is outside the “temple” today, but we can let her know that she is never outside our embrace.

You have also come alongside others in our community in times of need through personal relationship and political activism. You have not been trying to keep some people inside and some people outside your sphere of concern. Christian love demands that we care not just about our own self-interests. 
Christian discipleship also demands we trust in an authority higher than the lawmakers in Montgomery or in D.C.   

Which leads me to what is the most troubling part of this pastor’s diatribe. He closes with this dramatic appeal to his readers: “If America perishes, so do the hopes of all the world. That’s why keeping our borders secure, and upholding law and order for all people within our boundaries, are an act of compassion.”
What troubles me most and what helps me understand this man’s fear is that he has placed his trust in the US of A.  As a person of faith, I simply do not believe that “if America perishes, so do the hopes of all the world.”   

While I pray our nation remains strong, my great trust and my highest hopes are in God, not in America.  I don’t believe all the hopes of the world rest on the survival of any particular nation or that all of life’s goodness in sandwiched between Mexico and Canada.  That minister’s confession of ultimate faith in his country reveals much about his theology.  I believe if America perishes, God lives on.  But like the Temple authorities long ago who tried to restrict sacred experiences to a particular space that could be enclosed within walls, this no doubt well-intentioned minister has perhaps forgotten the reaches of God’s love. Jesus said he would become the new Temple that, though destroyed, would live on, and that kind of enduring love makes our hearts the dwelling place for God.  The holy is within each one of us. 

God has broken out of the Temple. God will not be remain inside our carefully guarded borders.  God is unlocking gates and tunneling under walls and wading across rivers and smuggling in the outsiders and preaching to the insiders and urging us all to be the alongsiders.  God bless America, land that I love. Y Dios bendice Mexico, y Guatamala, y Nicaragua, y Cuba, y Chile, y Peru.  God bless Germany and Nigeria and Australia and China and Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan and North Korea.  God bless those whose hearts are full of Christ’s compassion and who use their righteous indignation on behalf of others.
God of the Loving Heart, dwell in our hearts and make our lives sacred as we see the sacredness of all your children.  Amen

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Customized Crosses

Mark 8: 27-36

A few years ago Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, was asked why books on Buddhism were selling better than books on Christianity. “I think,” he said, “it’s because Buddhism presents itself as a way of life, and Christianity presents itself as a system of belief”[i] He was making a distinction in how these two religions “present” themselves, with Buddhism as a way of living and Christianity as a set of beliefs.  How ironic is that contrast since the early Christians were known as the people of The Way.  The first Jesus followers, living before the church councils were convened and the creeds were composed, saw themselves as faithful Jews practicing their faith in the way of Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus’ followers identified themselves not through a shared set of beliefs but by a commitment to Jesus’s spiritual path.  Likely those early Christians resembled Buddhists more than modern Christians in their approach to spirituality. They were “following in Jesus’ hopeful way,” to use a key phrase from Open Table’s mission statement.
When and why Christians began to create doctrines and institutions—and then formed their identity around them—is a topic for another day.  What’s important at this Lenten season is for us to recall, once more, that Jesus’s Way led him to a cross. We will be following him liturgically to that cross and beyond until Easter. As our Gospel reading today reminds us, the writers of Mark’s Gospel understood Jesus telling them that if they followed him, they too, would have to take up a cross.  If Senge is right—that Buddhism offers a way of life—must those of us who do recall the original Christian commitment to Jesus’s Way then concede that Christianity’s way is the way of the cross, the via dolorosa, the way of death rather than life?  If so, why would any sane person take that path?

The easy Easter answer is that Jesus’ death leads to life. 

But let’s be honest: a paradox devolves into mere contradiction if it doesn’t ignite insight.  A paradox deserves to survive only if it is produces light and life.  The way of Jesus should be equated with the way of the cross only if the cross somehow leads past horrific and undeserved violence to healing love.

For centuries some have used Jesus’ cross, the linchpin of Christian theology, to rationalize violence.  Many who know it has been misappropriated now wonder if the cross can remain a viable symbol for Christianity. While one can argue that even the most innocent of symbols are subject to misuse, the cross was arguably a logical emblem on the battle flag of the Crusaders and as a trademark terrorism tactic for the KKK.  That’s because the cross of Jesus is deeply rooted in a theology of violence in service to a God of violence.  Many have misconstrued Jesus’s crucifixion as an act required by a righteously angry God who exacted the life of an innocent victim to pay the penalty of human sin.   

But that unfortunate assumption that God required an innocent victim in order to forgive humanity—which is the foundation for substitutionary atonement theology—led Christians to use the cross to sanctify their own need for new scapegoats.  And because Jesus told his disciples they, too, would have crosses to bear, the powerful in this world have sometimes justified oppression by telling the powerless that, well, we all have our crosses to bear. 

Heartrending examples of how Jesus’ cross continues to create new victims are found in the book Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us.[ii]  The book begins with the story of one female pastor, Pat, whose parishioner, Anola, was stabbed to death by her enraged husband, who wielded ten kitchen knives in front of their three children.  One of the children would later report, “Daddy bent the knife in Mommy’s tummy, then he went to get the sharp knife.  We was crying when Daddy was killing Mommy” (19). Pat, their minister, confided to one of the authors that Anola had thought it “her religious duty” to return to her abusive husband even though Pat counseled her otherwise and offered her shelter at the parsonage.  Pat explained, “I t[old] her it’s her religious duty to protect her own life and take care of herself so she can protect her children.  But my words . . . [were] not enough” (Brock and Parker 17).  The author, upon hearing this colleague’s anguish, responded:

“Pat, the only way you could have helped Anola more is if the whole Christian tradition taught something other than self-sacrificing love.  If it didn’t preach that to be like Jesus we have to give up our lives in faithful obedience to the will of God.”

“But,” Pat said, “this IS what the church teaches.  And Anola is dead.”

The author says from then on she tested Christian theology against this question: “Would this theology have helped Anola . . .  resist the violence [she] faced?” (28-29).

I tell you this story before unpacking today’s text because I believe the church has often misunderstood Jesus’s call to “take up our cross.”  I think this misunderstanding especially takes place when a religious authority or some other person in power tells someone else who has less power—to take up their cross.  This is such a serious matter that I will not talk about taking up the cross of Jesus without this warning: no one but Jesus has the right to ask you to take up your cross.  No minister or loved one or institution can even define that cross for you.  If someone asks you, explicitly or implicitly, to sacrifice your selfhood, your freedom, your dignity to enhance their power and privilege, consider this:  Such a request is likely an act of disrespect at best and abuse at worst.  Remember Jesus believes you are worthy of infinite love.  Remember that those who can offer selfless love are able to do so only when they have whole and healthy selves to share.  Remember that any virtue can be twisted into something harmful and that selfless love can be misshapen into self-loathing and self-destruction.

It’s no wonder, friends, that the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians that proclaiming “Christ crucified” was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (I Cor. 1: 13).   That the Messiah would endure an ignoble death surely seemed confusing and even foolish.  But worse than confusion, worse than foolishness is the harm caused by those who’ve used the cross to justify oppression and violence.  Let us remember that the cross--at the “crux” of Christian theology--should remind “its followers and all other religions that to know God is to be concerned about [all] victims of our world”[iii].

Wary of how the cross has been misused, we return once more to Jesus’s warning that if the disciples were going to follow him, they would have to take up their crosses, too.  As soon as Peter expresses his understanding of Jesus as the Messiah (the anointed one whom God sent to save them), Jesus explains that to fulfill the Messianic role, he’ll have to suffer and die.  Peter believes Jesus has misunderstood.  How can Jesus rally the people and resist Rome if he’s killed? So Peter takes Jesus aside to correct him. But Jesus corrects Peter and then explains to all who were gathered: If you want to be one of my followers, the cost is high.  You must deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me.  Because in order to save your life, you must lose it.  A key theme in Mark is the high cost of discipleship.

Now keep in mind that Mark’s Gospel was written about the year 70 CE, not long after Rome burned in 64 CE and Nero, who blamed the Christians, then incited their persecution.  So Mark’s readers were already suffering for being Jesus followers.  The community that produced Mark is both recalling Jesus’s teaching that God’s way is costly—and actually experiencing suffering for being followers of The Way.  This story puts together the community’s memory of Jesus and their current experiences of living with the cost of being his followers.

Of course, you and I live in very different circumstances.  Certainly in some parts of the world some Christians endure persecution.  But when Americans who live in the Deep South and who live as part of the Christian majority complain that they are being persecuted—when they complain, for instance, they are not allowed to pray publicly in schools or erect a cross on public  property—they’ve confused persecution with simple restrictions that respect others’ rights.  Our cultural situation differs greatly from the political/social conditions of Mark’s readers.  We are in no danger of being crucified because we follow in Jesus’s way.

And yet, in some sense, we too, are called to take up our crosses. While aware of the misuses of the cross, we nevertheless find deep wisdom at the core of Jesus’ teaching that is, back to the Peter Senge comparsion, not so different from a Buddhist teaching.  To be “crucified with Christ” so that, as St. Paul said, we no longer live but Christ lives in us, is like the Buddhist concept of Sunyata, which literally means “Emptiness.” “Not emptiness in the purely negative sense of nothingness but emptiness in the sense of being able to receive anything.  .  .  . Sunyata means to have one’s own existence blow away (crucified?).” (Knitter 12).  Buddhists experience Sunyata when they let go of selfishness to become other-centered and inter-related with all.  Christians experience the unitive “mind of Christ” when they die to self in order to become Christ-centered  and inter-related with all. 

To die or crucify the self is not an act of masochism but of letting go, a turning loose, a trust in something larger than oneself, a relaxing into God’s arms, a relinquishing of the illusion that we are in charge of the universe.  This kind of spiritual dying is freeing as a false self dies and a truer, fuller self is born.

As we take up our crosses, notice that means each of us has a distinctive cross to bear. Jesus’s way, I believe, is less about all of us finding the same route and more about how we travel whatever road.  Jesus, you see, never spelled out what exactly his followers were to believe and very little about what they were to do.  Instead, he said, “Follow me,” as if they’d only understand by watching and by taking one step at a time.  Good teacher that he was, Jesus didn’t lecture; his students learned by doing, by being with him, and then by reflecting on what they had done.  So together they fed the multitudes, broke some religious laws, healed the sick, listened to parables, etc.  No wonder multiple Gospels developed: everyone’s experience of Jesus was a bit different.  Like any meaningful relationship, your followship of Jesus will be uniquely yours. 

Likewise, the cross you take up is unique to each of you. 
But for all of us there is some kind of dying we must do in order to live.  There is something in our lives that we grasp too tightly and we can be saved only by letting go of it, or at least our dependency on it.  It may not threaten our physical life, but it compromises our spiritual health.  It may not be a bad thing in and of itself, but it may be limiting us.  

Even in our community of faith, friends, we must learn to love and care for this fellowship while holding it lightly.  What a spiritual challenge!  To love with deep commitment but without a sense of ownership.  Open Table will continue to mature only to the extent that we can hold it closely, dearly, yet not tightly.  We can’t follow Jesus into freedom and spiritual maturity if we are overly concerned about the mere survival of our young church, or if we equate our membership in Open Table with our relationship to God. Self-preservation cannot be our highest goal.

You and I cannot, as individuals, follow Jesus except, step by step, moment by moment, crucifying our egos and agendas upon our customized crosses.  We cannot follow Jesus by adopting a correct belief system that demands little from us.  Instead, we follow Jesus by carrying a cross weighted with the cares of the world.  This is a demanding discipleship.  But Jesus leads on ahead of us.  

O Dying and Rising Savior and Friend, teach us, day by day, to bear our crosses, to trust the God of Compassion enough so that we can love more deeply and live more freely. Amen

[i] McLaren, Brian. Finding Our Way Again.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008, p. 3.   

[ii] Brock, Rita Nakashima and Rebecca Ann Parker.  Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us.  Boston: Beacon Press, 2001

[iii] Knitter, Paul.  Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian.  Oxford: OneWorld, 2009, p. 126.